Except for some Bundists, the town was almost totally Zionist. In the days of the first Russian Revolution , we also had a Bundist movement, but with the strengthening of the Reaction, and the waning of the revolution, the activity of that party was on the wane as well, and it had only a few remaining members, with whom we had, at times, stormy arguments in the synagogue (in the "Ezrat Nashim" [the women's section]). These arguments did not always end peacefully, and the hands, rather than the mouths, did the talking, and fights would break out. But most of the times, these stormy arguments would end in an orderly fashion, and we would have the upper hand. As a rule, the sympathy of the town's Jews and of the youth was with us, the Zionists.
Zionist activities, just like any other political activity under the Czarist regime, were carried out in secrecy and under difficult conditions, and there was always the need to take many precautions, lest we encounter the police or other agents of the authorities. More than that, even the reading of a book could raise the suspicion of a revolutionary activity and rebelliousness. It happened to my brother and his friend, who were sitting on a tree trunk in the Barbina, involved in reading a book which had not been approved by the censor. By chance, an "oradnik" (police officer) was passing by, and saw two Jewish boys reading a book. He arrested them on the spot and put them in jail in Rakov, and from there they were sent to the Minsk prison. Only after much effort, and some bribe, we succeeded in obtaining their release. We immediately sent my brother to America, and he is there to this day.
The migration from Rakov to America grew stronger in those days of the
Reaction, after the first revolution. The immigrants were mostly young, but
there also adults, even whole families. However, the town remained Zionist.
Years passed. The days of the First World War arrived. Rakov was suffering and hoping, together with the rest of humanity, for better days, for the coming days of peace. Finally they, too, arrived, and the joy was great. And a great dawn came to Jewish people: the Balfour Declaration! Eretz Israel was promised to the Jewish People. The Jewish street was stirrd, and the Zionist Movement and the migration to Eretz Israel were on the increase. Just like other conscientious and faithful Zionists, we my husband, David Lifshitz, and I went through soul searching, and decided to fulfill our life dream. In 1924 we 'ascended' to Eretz Israel and settled in the Montefiore Quarter, near Tel Aviv.
|David Lifshitz||Tema Lifshitz|
Rabbi Avraham Kalmanovitz, aman in his thirties, tall, shapely, with a nice face adorned with a still growing light beard, welcomed me, at first, very coolly and with reserve. But, as soon as he heard that I was a graduate of the Slovodka Yeshiva, and learned my 'ethics' there, his eyes shone, and he cried enthusiastically: "If that is so, then you are one of us, and deserve a second 'Shalom Aleichem' [welcome]".
He, Rabbi Kalmanovitz, was a 'veteran' of the "Knesst Israel" yeshiva of Slovodka, and was well known as one of its diligent and learned students. In addition, he was an ethical person through and through, and one of the disciples of the "Old Man", Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh, the head of the Yeshiva. He covered me with questions upon questions, about everybody and everything, about the Yeshiva, its heads, and its neighborhood. It was obvious that my presence awoke very pleasant memories of Slovodka, from where he had been away for more than five years, and with whom he had had little contact. It seemed that his soul was yearning to the Yeshiva, where he had been studying until the day of his wedding to the granddaughter of the rabbi of the K"K [Kityat Kodesh Hallowed Town] Rakov, where he received the throne of the rabbinate as a dowry. As a man in his thirties, young, always energetic and full of vigor, he assumed, as befitting the "Mara deAtra" [the town Rabbi] the appearance of solemnity, and the composure of an older, more mature, man. But, if the truth be known, he felt lonely and alone in the town, among the 'ba'alei batim' [well-to-do] with whom he was in daily contact regarding town matters. No wonder then, that when God chanced him to meet a man of 'pure Slovodkaite breeding', there was no limit to his joy, and he insisted that I stay at his house, near him. The next morning I sat in the old Beit Midrash [house of study], clinging to the pages of the Gmara, where I found refuge from all the hardship that had come upon me, forgetting my distress, and calming my nerves.
Rakov, this lovable town, welcomed me with all its Jewish warmth, as the first
refugee to come there. Rabbi Kalmanovitz arranged for two private students,
whom I taught Torah and Gmara. The tuition was sufficient for my bare
necessities. Each day, as soon as he discharged his public duties, which were
more than usual during those days, he [Rabbi Kalmanovitz] would escape to the
synagogue, sit next to me, and say: Come, let's study a page of Gmara. There
and then he would be sitting, immersed in his daily portion of the Talmud, and
studying with warmth and enthusiasm, the way all Slovodkaites do. And the
Slovodka chant would be heard in the synagogue: Tanu Rabanan! [our Sages
Oy, Rabbi Akiva said
and he would tap his middle finger. And
again and again, with warmth and enthusiasm, completely absorbed. This was
The sight of the refugees brought confusion and fright to the town. Nobody knew
what the next day would bring. It seemed that the catastrophe was approaching,
and Rakov's turn would come next. Many started packing their belongings and get
ready to flee. And, indeed, many did leave the town and fled with the refugees
to the interior of Russia. Others sent their wives and older daughters to
Minsk, temporarily, until the danger would pass, lest they fall prey, Heavens
forbid, to the lust of the soldiers and the Cossacks. Only the males stayed
home, to guard their meager property. However, not much could be saved, and
when a soldier or a Cossack entered a shop and reached his hand to the shelves
to grab the goods, they would stand, the so-called guardians, frightened and
pale with fear, with only one prayer on their lips: "Please, Lord of the
Universe, let me save my soul, and You may take my property"
Rabbi Kalmanovitz entered into 'the thick of things', and as was usual with him with energy and with a great organizational skill. A Refugee Aid Committee was selected, which got in touch with the Red Cross and the "Zamski-Siuz", and these organizations provided the needed help, and distributed food and clothing to the Jewish refugees.
My friend and I were 'harnessed to the yoke' of the practical work. We became the "drawers of water and hewers of wood" [responsible for the 'dirty' work] for the Aid Committee. Every morning, at dawn, we drove a wagon to the offices of the Red Cross, and were apportioned food according to the list of refugees which we had: loaves of bread, sugar, flour, grits, salt, oil, and more. We would store all of that in a warehouse, next to the Rabbi's house, and there the refugees would go to receive their portions. To the credit of the local Red Cross and "Zamski-Siuz", it has to be said that their treatment of the Jewish refugees was very fair, and that they distributes to the refugees whatever they had, just as they did to the Christian refugees.
In the meantime, Dr. Nahum Gergle arrived in town a representative of YEKOPA (the Petrograd Central Jewish Refugee Committee), a known and learned public figure. Dr Grgle was the right man for the task; and a very responsible and difficult task it was. He was one of "our" Jews: with a warm Jewish heart, and nice manners toward those who needed him. He excelled in organizational skills, and was very energetic. He settled with his staff of helpers and coworkers in Minsk, the closest city to the Northwestern front, into where a 'river' of refugees was streaming. Wherever he went he would spread optimism, encouragement, and good spirit. He attracted the intelligentsia and the local public figures, and helped those refugees who expressed the desire to settle in town or in one of the villages near Rakov. In fact, most of the refugees chose to move to the interior of Russia.
One fact should be noted: In our work we often had to get in touch with the local military authorities a request for a license to be out-of-doors at night, a permit for a visit by a physician, and bringing in medical supplies and we were always received with exceptional politeness, at times better than what we had expected. The chief medical officer, Polkovnik Vlasavski, deserves a special mention. He was always distinguished by his warm, humane, and cordial response. When he was asked to see a sick person, he would do it willingly, even in the middle of the night, and would examine the patient, prescribe medication, and at times even give the money [for buying the medicine]. We viewed him, very properly, as one of the Just Gentiles. And this gave us a small comfort during those very bitter days which we had to endure.
Taken from the book "BaNechar"
[in the Strange Land],
published in Canada, 1945
Some interesting details from the proceedings of that meeting were engraved in my memory: The first to mount the stage was the representative of the Bund a young man, not local, wearing a short coat (kurtka). His friends the Bundists surrounded him. He took off his coat, gave it to one of his friends, and started his speech: "The situation of our Jewish brethren in Russia is terrible and dreadful" But he was interrupted by the vopice of Yitzhak Yakov, nicknamed "The Big": "Sheigetz [an unruly young man], get off the stage!". A commotion ensued. Someone intervened, quieted the audience, and the speaker started his speech again: "The terrible situation of" and, again, he was interrupted by "Big" Yitzhak Yakov. And it was repeated several times, until Yitzhak Yakov was calmed down, and the Bundist managed, finally, to finish his speech.
By the end of the meeting, the heads of the community agreed to the principle of self-defense, and to fund the purchase of weapons. With the agreement of all present, the writer of these notes was elected to head the defense and to coordinate the purchase of weapons. I still had to correct one small defect, that up to that day I had not held a pistol or a rifle For two weeks I went to the Zdizhovski Forest every day, accompanied by the grandson of the heder teacher R. Neta Yitzik, and practiced holding a weapon and shooting it. My teacher had just returned from the front in Port Arthur [on the Pacific, where the Russian suffered a humiliating defeat by the Japanese] and was an expert in the use of weapons. Having acquired the skills of aiming and shooting, all obstacles were removed, and I could devote all my energy to the task which had been placed on me.
Two of the respected members of our town were sent to Minsk to purchase weapons: Avraham Ze'ev Merin and young Velvel, the son of the carpenter. The market day was, then, on Monday, and therefore we convened a meeting of the Defense Staff in my home, every Sunday night, to take the necessary precautions, in case a riot would break out. Upon the return of the 'emissaries' from Minsk, we held a special meeting in my home; with the brothers Pesach and Shaya Starovin, Polya Guts of the Bund, Ze'ev [Velvel] the Leatherworker, Avraham Ze'ev Merin, and Bonya Abas participating. The town people were represented in the meeting by Yitzhak the Baker, and I represented the Zionists. From the report of the 'emissaries' it turned out that they had purchased (illegally, of course) two Finnish knives, and some seventy rubber clubs. The mention of the "Finnish knives" made the representative of the town people very angry: "These knives would bring a catastrophe upon our heads!" he shouted, "Even the mere possession of this horrible weapon by Jewish men could start a riot." And he insisted that the knives be destroyed and disappear immediately. We did not want to cause a schism in our group, and that very night I buried the knives in the cellar of the Merins.
When the meeting calmed down, we made our plans. The defense force of Rakov numbered about one hundred young men, trained in the use of weapons, capable of defending the town if necessary. We divided them into three groups: the first was positioned in Vilna Street, the second in Minsk Street, and the third in the market square. They had to be on guard on market days. I had but two responsibilities: to provide them with the weapons when necessary, and also the herring and bread
The meeting proceded in the spirit of general agreement and with understanding of the seriousness of our situation. But as it was ending we received a shock: Just before the meeting concluded, Velvel the Leatherworker, stood up and turned to the participants in a conspiratorial voice: "This is all well and good, but in my opinion we have to employ the trusted and true mean, used by Jews for generations: a handsome gift to the Pristav [mayor] of the town would surely be of great benefit, and save us from rioters." Bonya Abas supported him, but the rest of the participants expressed their disgust at this suggestion, especially Polya Guts who shouted: "Aren't you ashamed? Don't you know, what is obvious to all of us, that the authorities themselves are the organizers of the pogroms against the Jews?" The proposal of Velvel the Leatherworker was taken off the agenda.
We continued to prepare the youth for the fateful day. The preparations and the
purchase of the weapons could not remain secret, and the whole town knew its
hiding place. All of this treasure, on which the defense of the town depended,
was stored in a small suitcase under my bed. But, in the end, the alarm proved
to be a false alarm. The peace in the town was not disturbed, and the arms
cache remained in the suitcase, unused until it rusted.
We held prayers three times a day; on weekdays, on the Sabbaths, and on the HolidAys. We each had an opportunity to utilize our cantorial talents as 'emissaries of the congregation' and leaders of the services. Surely, we felt good, and were well satisfied. We were even considering inviting a rabbi to conduct evening lessons in "Ein Ya'akov" and "Menorat HaMaor" [religious-ethical texts]. Until the following event happened:
One wintery, snowy, Friday night, when we were all together for the prayers welcoming the Sabbath, a young man appeared in our House of Prayer tall, handsome, with a "pensana" [mole] on his nose and a pleasant smile spread all over his face. After the greetings of "Shalom Aleichem" and "Aleichem Shalom", he came right to the point, and said that he brought some pamphlets, and requested that we would read them that night. As for the morrow [Sabbath day], he asked permission to come again to the synagogue, as he wished to talk to us on current events. We had not heard of the new breed of "Orators" and "Renders", and therefore thought him to be a young 'magid' [traditional preacher], and willingly agreed to his request. After the services he distributed the pamphlets, and with a smile on his face he said: "Read it! Please, read! But, I ask you, not in the presence of your parents."
Until late in the night, each of us was immersed in this thin pamphlet, and something new, strange, and not understood, came to us from its pages. It seemed to be written in Yiddish; yet it was not the familiar language or the familiar words. What words! Beyond understanding! Words like "conspiracy", "expropriation", "conference", and many more strange and unusual words which we had never heard.
Next morning, the Sabbath day, when we met in our peaceful House of Prayer, the pamphlet was, of course, the main topic of conversation: Did you read? I did read. And what do you think? I did not understand. Was the answer.
The young man showed up even before the service began, greeted us, removed his overcoat, took off his hat, and stood before us with a red "rubashka", and a red band around his waist, with the same charming, heart capturing , smile on his face. All of that his cloths, the way he carried himself, his appearance made an unforgettable impression on us, the likes of which we had not known. None of us dared tell him that he was standing in a sacred place, and that he had to put on a hat Suddenly, he asked our permission to speak, and immediately started to talk. He spoke enthusiastically, with clarity, and very convincingly, until he wrapped us with his thoughts, enchanting us with every word he uttered.
Finally, he told us that a new organization was established in Minsk, the Bund, and that it was sending "agitatorim" [propagandists, agitators] to the neighboring towns and villages, to recruits members, and to establish new branches. And that was what he wanted to do here to establish a branch of the Bund in Rakov. For that purpose he was willing to remain with us, teach us, and explain the goals and ways of this new organization.
All of us, as one, signed up for membership then and there. And thus, instead of a rabbi to teach us the lessons of "Ein Ya'akov", that young man was teaching us, every evening, the lessons of the Bund and of the revolution.
Printed in "Di Shtima fun Rakov
Froyen Klub", United States, 1939.
Even those boys and girls who yearned for some romantic literature had some one who catered to them, namely, R. Arre the Matchmaker. Arre had a small private library, in which one could find all kinds of 'meisse bichlach' [simple-minded stories] such as "Ali Baba", "Di Farchishefte Moid" and so forth, and the popular books of ShM"R. In addition to the private library of Arre the Matchmaker, the town was supplied with 'meisse bichlach' by the book-selling peddlers. They would come and turn the tables of the synagogue into stalls for selling their storybooks next to the siddurs [prayer books], tzitzits [fringed garments], and so on, whatever they had in their haversacks
This ideal and innocent situation changed as the times changed, with the introduction of the Zionist idea and the Bundist-Socialist movement to the town. At one and the same time, at the end of the Nineties of the last [nineteenth] Century, two libraries were established: the Zionist library, by the group centered around Yitzick the Baker, and the Socialist library, by a group of workers in town. It is interesting to note that the first books in the Zionist library were volumes of the Bible, which were donated by the society "Tif'eret Bahurim" [the glory of young men], which had been founded by young men of both working and bourgeois families. They used to meet every evening at the home of David the Potter, where R. Leib Yosephs would teach them a chapter of the Bible, and would end the lesson with preacing a little "Yiddishkeit" [Jewishness].
In 1904, a third, Hebrew, library was established. In those days, the Hebrew teacher Sh. Y. Re'uveni, the son-in-law of R. Mordechai Yehudah, opened a "revised heder". He took upon himself the goal of implanting the love of the Hebrew language in the hearts of the pupils. For this purpose he needed some easy Hebrew children books. Funds were raised by individual donations and by fundraising parties which were held from time to time, and the library grew and developed into a full fledged Hebrew library, of significant importance to the Hebrew movement in town.
During the years 1907-8, when the Reactionary forces in Russia grew stronger, the authorities placed obstacles to the establishment and growth of libraries in general, and Jewish libraries in particular. The library they most disliked, most like a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, was the one called the "Socialist" Library. It was run by Re'uven Yoshua and his sons. People started considering the idea of merging the three libraries, and putting them under the wing of the "Bikur Holim" [visiting the sick] Society, the only society which had been approved by the authorities. A committee of two was selected to effect the merger: Eliezer Stolovitsky, and the writer.
After long and tedious negotiations with all the parties involved, and with the representatives of the "Bikur Holim", Avraham Yitchke Isaacs, who was much afraid of the "Tzezilestelach" [The Socialists], the merger took place under the auspices of the "Bikur Holim Society", and received the approval of the authorities. This was the golden age of the library. Under the joint effort of everybody involved, of all the parties, the library grew and flourished, and had hundreds of books in the three languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. This happy period ended with the breaking out of the First World War, when the library was forced to shut down, the books put into boxes and transferred to a safer place than a town next to the front.
Printed in "Solominka", published by the
Organization of the Rakovians in America
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